Veteran animator and story artist discusses the challenges of helming DreamWorks Animation’s latest hit in the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ feature film franchise.
As the latest offering in the Jack Black-fronted Kung Fu Panda franchise, Kung Fu Panda 3 has been a solid box-office success for DreamWorks Animation, and marks their first feature co-production of sorts (collaboration may be a better word) with their Shanghai-based Chinese studio, Oriental DreamWorks. It also marks the first time they’ve produced new facial animation specifically to sync with the Mandarin voice acting recorded for the Chinese version of the film.
Helming the latest Panda offering are Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh, two DreamWorks veterans with many years of directing, animating, story and visual design development between them. I recently had a chance to speak with Carloni, who gave us his take on the co-directing dynamic he experienced working with Yuh as well as the challenges of leading such an important studio feature franchise production.
Dan Sarto: When did you first get involved in the production?
Alessandro Carloni: Jen [co-director Jennifer Yuh] had been working on Kung Fu Panda 3 already for some time. I was working on a different project and was actually invited onto the project by Jen because the scope of the movie was getting bigger and bigger. After I came on board, the movie changed significantly – we’d figured out a new idea together. Then we just blasted through it [to get it produced].
Jen and I had worked closely together on the first movie. When you work on a sequel, especially a sequel that is so character driven like Kung Fu Panda, you feel yourself more the steward of a character...you're of course the director, but there is also this stewardship element involved. You really need to protect it, to save it and safeguard it from any experimental approach. It was wonderful to be working again with Jen because both of us are part of to at least some degree the parents of this character, and the two of us together really work well because of that.
DS: Describe your co-directing dynamic. It's very common these days to have two directors on an animated film. Did you share most duties, or divide and conquer?
AC: On the front end, coming up with a story, coming up with the idea, it was evenly divided. The two of us worked together through the storyboard and editorial process. The idea was to try some divide and conquer. Through actual production, the execution phase of the movie, I might have been involved more with animation and she maybe with the layout, the first time we set out cameras and literally laid out the scenes. As the production went on, we just found ourselves sharing everything. It became more convenient for us, and ironically sometimes even more expeditious, because instead of having to check in with each other we just followed through on things together.
The time came though when suddenly it became too much work. Sometimes I was in a meeting and she was in another meeting. But, it was rather seamless because again, while we have different tastes in many things, when it comes to Po and what we want from the story, we are truly like two minds in one.
DS: You brought a varied background into your role as director on this film. From a technical to a managerial to a creative standpoint, what are some of the skills that have served you best on this project?
AC: I find it interesting that throughout my career, I’ve done a few things here and there, with animation, with story, even writing a little bit of music, and so perhaps I became mediocre at many things. But the studio system is perfect in that it allows you to truly collaborate with people who are brilliant at what they do.
If there's anything in my skill set, if I have any [capabilities], what has become truly key for me is probably my ability to work with others. I get countless portfolios, get approached by students who show so much talent, but more often than not they are kids that never leave their room. The longer my career gets, the more I value true collaborators. I'm willing to collaborate perhaps with someone who has a little less talent but better skills at working with others than a true genius that is unmanageable and impossible to work with.
I try to come into a room and have fun with the crew. If there is anything that has probably helped me the most on this movie, a production that is so schedule intense and is being executed so quickly, it’s being able to be in a room with a large group of people and still manage to have some fun with them, and manage to collaborate with them.
DS: So when you’re in that room, collaborating, people look to you for guidance and support, especially when they’re uncertain or overwhelmed. How do you keep your cool? How do you handle the pressure knowing everyone is looking to you, when you yourself just want to run away screaming?
AC: The [conventional] school of thought is to never let them see you waver and show how conflicted you are – you must always show you’re truly determined. I found over time that it’s actually really good to show your fragility, to show where you're insecure.
More often than not we are in a room where I have to launch my crews -- for example my animators -- on a particular shot. Let's say the line [of dialogue] is not good. It's a bad line and I have to launch my animators. The school of thought will be, "This is the line. We are going to do this. Trust me, it’s going to be great.”
More often than not we say "I know it sucks, doesn't it? I know we need to make it better." What helped me was to be insecure in front of them. Not all the time, of course -- you can't be a quivering mess. But, to let them see the fact that you have questions yourself, that's one fundamental difference [in approach] which turns your crew into collaborators and partners instead of a group of minions. You end up being partners. If you share with someone, “Look, I don't like this either. How can we make it better?" the conversation switches to how to improve it versus being stuck on, "I don't like this, this sucks, this is stupid."
I have been in so many meetings where you're supposed to move forward but get stuck on something because not everybody agrees. Then it becomes a venting-fest about a small problem. If you are willing to say, "Yes, I hate it too" it becomes a session on how to fix it.
More often than not I find myself being happy to share that my hair is on fire, as long as they still know they can trust me to fix the problem. You can never leave a room thinking, "I'm so scared, what are we going to do?" You want people to say, "Yeah he’s scared too, but he's got it." That's probably the hardest thing to do when you're in a leadership position isn't it? To never show weakness is something I never subscribe to.
DS: Kung Fu Panda 3 is a big film for DreamWorks. It’s a sequel to an extremely successful franchise. It’s the first major film that the studio has produced in conjunction with Oriental DreamWorks in Shanghai, which means there are tremendous expectations for how it performs in the explosive Chinese theatrical market. Do these factors add to the pressure you already face helming a major animation studio feature release?
AC: I would be lying if I told you it wasn't more intense because of those factors, even simply from a fan base point of view. You're not just introducing something new. People love these characters -- people have grown up with these characters.
We have crew members that were 15 when the first Panda movie came out. There's a fan base out there that will hate you if you dare ruin what they love. There's definitely more pressure in playing with characters that have been around for so long.
How to deal with it? I don't know if I know how to deal with it. Sometimes I do close myself in a room and cry. But the truth is that what I love about the studio system, which is very different from the European way of making movies, is that you have a team. A team much like in a sports analogy. If you break down for a moment, the game won't stop. You have teammates that will carry you.
That's what's wonderful about a studio like DreamWorks. If for a moment, you don't know what you're going to do, or you're confused, terrified or paralyzed by the project’s expectations, there are people helping you along the way. You have your crew, executives like Jeffrey [Katzenberg] who has been this champion of ploughing problems out of your way while you’re trying to get the movie done, or a partner like Jen, who says, "You know what? Take a day or go cry in the bathroom for five minutes." Of course you do the same thing when it happens to them because that what it comes down to. Once you've embraced the team then it becomes a fantastic tool and a fantastic way of approaching filmmaking.
DS: What exactly has ODW’s involvement been on this film, and what has been your involvement in the work they have done?
AC: First of all, the interesting thing about how this came to be is a simple matter of they [China] loved Kung Fu Panda. The first Kung Fu Panda has remained one of the most successful movies of all time in China. Somehow it happened that filmmakers from China came to us saying, "in Hollywood you made a movie about Kung Fu and China and you did better than us. What the heck is going on here?"
It became a conversation, “Why don't we do something together?" ODW has become a studio that makes their own movies for the Chinese market. What Panda ended up being was the first movie that we truly collaborated on together.
It was wonderful first of all because on the first Panda film, we did a lot of research to try and be authentic to China. We were relying on our Chinese friends and research trips. Now, we have Chinese partners. If we have questions about making something authentic we just pick up a phone and ask, “What do you do here, what do you do there?" It was really a weight off our shoulders. When it came to the actual production, they did some of the surfacing, some of the lighting, and of course they animated the lip-sync for the Mandarin version, which looks fantastic.
DS: How did you interface with the studio from a directorial standpoint?
AC: Much as we would with any partner. You get to see something perhaps more sporadically because of the time difference. Another issue is the Chinese voice work. There was a co-director who helped us a lot, directing the performance of the Chinese actors for the Mandarin version. To direct a person in a language that you don’t understand is truly impossible.
DS: Looking back, what were the main challenges you faced directing this film?
AC: Well, I guess one of the main challenge was to focus on the characters and keep the movie Po-centric. The success of this franchise I truly believe is the character himself and how much people love him. Of course the tendency as you go forward in a saga is to get bigger, which can very easily be distracting -- you create an epic movie about war and stuff and suddenly, "Right, there's Po in the middle of that.” You have to find an angle to make sure that whatever happens around Po supports his personality and his character. It kind of became our guiding rule. Now that we know Po, what will it be fun to see him do? Who will it be fun to see him next to? That became the guiding rule and without something like that it would be very easy to just find yourself in a ginormous epic movie that has lost your main character.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.